The Bridge Interviews
The first connection between my family and Burford goes back to 1649 when Cromwell sent Colonel Oakey, a connection of my mother’s family, to oversee the shooting of the leaders of the mutinous Levellers in the churchyard. My mother’s family, the Elkingtons, lived in North Oxfordshire. She was a farmer’s daughter and she had cousins in the Midlands who were silversmiths and made amongst other things the FA cup.
My father was born in eastern Germany and came to this country at the age of 19 as a prisoner of war in 1944. He also came from a farming background and was happy to be here and to work on the fields. He never spoke about the war and there was never any backlash towards him. He later worked for a Major Drue as a sort of batman and chauffeur, teaching the major’s children to swim and shoot. Drue was well-connected. He was a cousin of Lord Caernarvon and my father once spent a weekend as a butler at Highclere, now better known as Downton Abbey. Mrs Drue was a cousin of Evelyn Waugh. My father accompanied the family on holiday to Cannes and grouse-shooting in Scotland.
In 1955 my mother and a cousin went to the West Country for six weeks to help run a hotel and that is where she met my father. They married in 1956 and came to live at Burford Priory, she as cook/housekeeper, he as head gardener (and only gardener). It was a lot of work for him – there were two miles of yew hedging which had to be cut by hand. They lived in a cottage in the grounds. My brother Philip was born in 1956 followed by my sister Sonia in 1958 and me in 1961.
It was an idyllic life at the Priory. As it was a convent, it was like having 27 mothers to look after us and babysit for us. The high walls kept us safe and secure. There were nearly 30 acres of gardens and woods bordered by the river. We spent our time looking for birds’ nests, foxes and badgers and catching minnows. All our fruit and veg was organic. My earliest memory is of being put in a pram for three days with the son of the landlord of the Cotswold Arms to make sure I caught chickenpox, which I had resolutely refused to catch from my brother and sister.
One summer we went to stay for six weeks with my mother’s parents on their farm and had a wonderful time. Both my mother’s parents came from families of 11 and many of them were farmers in a tight circle around North Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire so we were able to visit lots of great aunts and uncles. We learnt how to light a bonfire, clean shoes, treat nettle stings with dock leaves and many other things. The farmhouse didn’t have a bathroom and the loo was in an outbuilding. My grandfather never learnt to drive and he went around on horseback. On special occasions he would take us round in a horse and trap.
I never knew my father’s parents as they died before I was born. However one summer we went in a camper van to visit relatives in East Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Life in East Germany was very hard at that time.
In 1970 we moved to the High Street to what is now Burford Needlecraft which had accommodation above and a cottage behind. My father used to buy boxes of second-hand books at auctions and he decided to start a shop selling second-hand and antiquarian books and “garden ornaments”, in other words gnomes. One of the newspapers had a photograph of Douglas Hurd walking out of the shop carrying a gnome and they captioned it “Gnome Secretary”. The shop was very popular although I didn’t read many books – the cobbler’s child is always worst read.
We used to go to Stoke-on-Trent to buy china from manufacturers like Wedgewood and Spode. That was my first experience of places to the north and of meeting people from elsewhere. They were very friendly and hardworking. It was a big industrial centre, but most of the china makers have now disappeared. One day I was helping in the shop and a glamorous woman came in on her own and bought a guide book to the Cotswolds from me. After she left my father told me that she was Princess Grace of Monaco.
We went to the primary school, then for a year at what we called the bottom school and after that to the top school. I was dyslexic although that word was not known at that time. We went through the cubs, scouts or brownies, the Sunday School, church choir, youth club and bell ringers. At that time there were a lot of children living in the High Street, either above shops or behind, and we used to play in the road. We had races in wooden go-karts from the Highway Hotel to Mrs Bumbles, with a marshal at Witney Street in case any traffic came out. If anyone had come out of the Bull at the wrong time they would probably have been mown down.
I was here before there was a roundabout, traffic lights or a pedestrian crossing. There was what my mother called a wet fish shop, a bakery, greengrocers, two ironmongers and a florist. Best of all there was an undertaker, Arthur Francis, where Mallams now is. I used to hang around there while he made the coffins, hoping one day to see a dead body.
We would make our own fun, catching minnows from the river, lots of cycling without the watchful eye of our parents, going out early and getting home late. During the school holidays we would “borrow” canoes from the boarding house and take them out on the river. The worst mischief we got up to at school was to go into the girls’ loos and put all the seats up. I also had my first kiss. It was confusing but I fell instantly in love. Sadly the following year Lucy fell ill with distemper and had to be put down.
My first paid job was helping in the newsagents on a Saturday morning for 12½p per hour. I helped the dustman sort rubbish, and had a lucrative position with Lord Beaverbrook – a paper round in Witney Street and Swan Lane. I combined this with walking a dog and getting coal in for people at the same time. At 16 I rented a room behind the haberdashers – now the cheese shop – and sold “antiques” which I had bought at jumble sales. This turned out to be very successful as such things were all the rage then.
I left school after A levels and went on a two year tourism course in the West Country where I was taught things like how to run a pub, hotel, tourist office or opera house. I then came back to Burford and opened the tourist office where Maggie White now is. There was also a travel agents in the same shop, so the queries were about either Bibury or Benidorm. In 1988 I opened the Burford Market in the old Warwick Hall and under the Methodist Church, so this year it has been going for 30 years. I sublet the space to 20 or 30 dealers who sell interesting items. I vividly recall one of them selling a chamber pot to a Canadian visitor and saying it was for drinking English punch.
In 1987 I wanted to buy a cottage in Guildenford for £17,500 but my father talked me out of it. The following year I bought Murton Cottage in the Lower High Street. I completely renovated it myself. One day I was stripping plaster off the dividing wall and I found myself looking into my neighbour’s airing cupboard. I quickly repaired it before he came home. The subject was never mentioned. Good fences make good neighbours.
Then a really big thing happened. I met Christopher. I went to the Canary Islands at Christmas with a group of friends. He did the same and we met there. He lived in Dublin and I lived in Burford. It couldn’t work – could it? Twenty seven years later we are still together. We have never found time for an argument. We are seven weeks apart in age. He comes from a family of doctors and lectures on art and art history and also has a paint company which specialises in restoring historic buildings. He still lives in Ireland and we spend time together here or there, or we meet somewhere else.
In 1999 we bought Greyhounds in Sheep Street. It was originally a wool merchant’s house with a separate wool barn behind. Later it was an inn, then a temperance hotel and later still the office of the Countryman magazine. Surprisingly it was not a listed building, although it is in a conservation area. We completely gutted it and filled 98 skips. It is now a comfortable house with a pair of apartments to let, a cottage in the garden and bed and breakfast accommodation.
We are happy to share the garden when asked. David Cameron has used it for lunch parties three times and has planted a tree here. The Burford & District Society have had their tea party here, the WI have used it for cheese and wine and the library friends have held poetry readings. It has been used for photo shoots for Joules clothing and Atco lawnmowers. Once the Guinness family used it after the funeral of Diana Mosley (née Mitford). She is buried at Swinbrook and her son from her first marriage was a Guinness. Loads of food arrived from Chatsworth and there was lots of Guinness as well as Guinnesses. Oddly no one around seemed to notice all this happening.
I am probably best known for my shop, Three French Hens, which sells lots of things you don’t need and hundreds of funny cards you shouldn’t send. I would like to say a big thank you to the team of five who run the shop – it would be nothing without them. I have been on the council for the last five years or so, and am chairman of the cubs and scouts. I help to sweep up the dirty parts of the town with a small team of dedicated helpers. I enjoy everything I do and regard my work and various activities as a hobby. I suppose I am a bit of a workaholic. I am teetotal (having got very drunk at the age of 17 while my parents were away) and do not smoke.
My mother is 94 and lives at the Elizabeth Finn home in Bradwell Village. She enjoys life there very much and believes she is staying in an excellent hotel.
I tried free association to think of ten things to do with England. I came up with countryside, tea shops, rain, cricket, WIs, vicars, tourists, traffic, gardens and seaside postcards. Nine of them can be found in Burford and the Cotswolds (not the seaside). How lucky we are to live here and I feel very passionate about Burford and maintaining its heritage. I feel very privileged to live in the town where I was born and grew up and enjoy being able to give something back to the community.